Thursday September 1, 2011

GREAT BARRINGTON -- Citing a dearth of customers, the Wednesday afternoon farmers market here closed up shop for good this week after a five-year run.

Farmers interviewed said the market’s failure could hint at a bigger challenge looming over the growing local-food movement in the Berkshires: The supply of fresh, local vegetables may have outstripped existing demand from the region’s self-proclaimed locavores.

"Ten years ago, it was tough to get enough farmers to put together a market," said Dominic Palumbo, who owns Moon in the Pond Farm and has been farming in Sheffield for 20 years. "Now there are more farms, but there’s also this lag. We need to catch up and get more consumers. It’s a difficult time, and we’ve been having a difficult time for a couple years now."

On Wednesday, a steady trickle of customers wandered past the 11 booths set up on West Avenue next to the Nutrition Center, just below Fairview Hospital.

Peter Stanton, the market’s manager and the director of the Nutrition Center, said about 80 customers come through the market between 3 and 6 p.m. on an average day -- not enough to make it financially viable, according to the farmers.

"It’s largely not worth our time to come here, economically speaking," said Justin Torrico, a founder of Community Cooperative Farm in Sheffield, which is in its second season.

But according to those involved, the market in Great Barrington wasn’t born out of capitalistic drive or economic viability studies.

To the market’s creator and the farmers who have stuck with it through five slow seasons, the goal had always been to extend the locally grown movement to those who weren’t already participating, particularly area residents and low-income families.

The market tried to reach out to new customers in a variety of ways over the years, including accepting food stamps at twice their face value.

Still, Stanton said it’s tough to convince would-be patrons that the benefits of locally grown produce are worth changing entrenched shopping habits.

"There’s this whole new crew of local farmers, but people who don’t eat at restaurants, can’t afford to buy farm shares, how do we get their food to those people?" Stanton said.

In fact, a desire to give that new crew of farmers a retail outlet was the other factor that drove Stanton to launch the Wednesday market.

Established markets, such as the bustling Saturday market in Great Barrington, are at capacity, and largely not accepting new vendors, leaving new farms out in the cold, said Stanton.

But while some markets have found success over the years, other markets are finding that it’s a hard go. Stanton said even some of the more established markets in nearby towns face the same struggles he encountered, finding it difficult to muster the crowds needed to make the enterprise viable.

Palumbo attributed some of the troubles faced by farmers markets, new and old, to growing pains in the local food movement.

"There are still a lot of people coming around to local," said Palumbo, who sold his meat and produce at the Wednesday market for the duration of its five-year run.

He said it was easier to convince the first wave of adopters to embrace the movement because those people didn’t have to be sold on the benefits of locally grown food -- they already understood that it’s healthier and that supporting local farms benefits the community as a whole, he said.

"Beyond them, it requires a really strong educational push, and that’s what’s involved here," he said. "It’s a matter of education."

Jeff Cole, the executive director of the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets, said it’s not uncommon for markets to close. Of the 245 markets in the state, between eight and 10 have been closing annually, with new ones popping up elsewhere.

Cole said he encourages people interested in starting new markets to do an economic viability study first, but he acknowledged that very few people take his advice.

But for Stanton and the farmers who joined his market, the enterprise was about generating new demand.

For Stanton, the question of how to make local food accessible and local farms viable remains.

"If there’s going to be a change of culture around where people are buying their food, it’s going to be community driven," he said. "It takes more than a new market and a dozen farmers to make that happen."